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Minister scrapped job competition for health advocate, instead appointing prominent UCP figure

Alberta's health minister discarded a ready-to-go job competition to find the province's next health advocate in favour of appointing a UCP stalwart. 

Documents show minister’s office called down job posting the day it was set to go public

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro decided to appoint Janice Harrington as health advocate instead of carrying through on original plan for a job competition to fill the role. (CBC)

Alberta's health minister discarded a ready-to-go job competition to find the province's next health advocate in favour of appointing a UCP stalwart. 

Documents show Tyler Shandro's office asked for recruiters to hold off on posting the job the day it was set to go public. 

The documents were shared with CBC News by the NDP, after the party obtained them through a freedom of information request. 

Janice Harrington, a former UCP executive director, was named health and mental health patient advocate in November. The job description for that role was never published and has not been made available, despite repeated requests.

In August, a plan was put in motion to fill the gap soon to be left by the advocate's term expiring in November. The ministry and department wanted to have someone new in place for that date. The deputy minister of health was given the green light by the premier and minister's offices to fill the role using a recruitment process. 

Public servants started the paperwork, drafted the job description and strategized how to attract candidates. 

By mid-September a draft was ready, but the department was concerned combining health and mental health roles could draw out the process and make it difficult to find a suitable candidate. 

The time crunch was mentioned repeatedly as the target date of November inched closer.

Weeks went by with little coordination between the two departments in charge of the hiring. Emails show the job posting paperwork had been approved, but had fallen through the cracks. 

Posting called down hours before publishing 

Near the end of October, about a week from the target deadline, the minister's office asked for an update and to see the text of the job posting. 

The following day it was ready to go. As recruitment managers were about to hit "publish," they were told to hold off. The deputy minister was in a meeting with Shandro and was awaiting his direction. 

The next day the deputy minister's office was informed the minister had chosen someone for the role: Janice Harrington.

Janice Harrington was appointed Alberta's health and mental health advocate in November. (Health Advocate website)

Extra correspondence that occurred in that 24-hour window was withheld from the document package because of FOIP regulations. 

Every health advocate must be approved by the health minister, then an appointment is made official through an order in council. 

However, in the past, health advocates have been chosen through a competition process — with the job description made public.  

Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, said it's odd to go through the trouble of a competitive process only to cancel it at the penultimate moment. 

"Not only to cut short that process or to set it aside, but to instead appoint someone who is an active and rather passionate partisan makes it look like this advocacy position is really nothing more than an arm of the government doing the government's bidding," she said. 

Williams added it would have been an "advantage" to the UCP to have a transparent vetting process as a way to show Albertans the best candidate was selected.

Tight timeline a factor

Shandro's office said that the tight timeline they set to replace the advocate factored into the minister's decision. 

"Rather than have a vacancy for the important Advocate role, it was decided to proceed expeditiously in appointing a replacement," Steve Buick, the minister's press secretary, said in a statement.

The cancelled job competition is one critique, but Harrington's qualifications have also attracted criticism. 

Harrington has no background in healthcare or health administration, according to her LinkedIn profile. Her career trajectory has carried her through communications, public affairs and government relations. The minister's office did not provide an answer when asked if she fit the criteria set out in the job posting. 

Her two predecessors both had healthcare experience. Neither were unilaterally appointed. 

Rather than have a vacancy for the important Advocate role, it was decided to proceed expeditiously in appointing a replacement.- Minister Shandro's office

Minister Shandro's office said Harrington's diverse skill set makes her an ideal choice for her role. 

"The Health Advocate must be a voice for Albertans and be capable of effectively engaging government, the public and other stakeholders. Ms. Harrington has extensive experience working in media, public relations and marketing."

That background wouldn't necessarily rule her out for this appointment, Williams said, but added she finds the optics problematic given Harrington's past involvement with the now-governing UCP. 

Harrington declined to be interviewed and her office referred the request back to the minister's office. Her term expires in November 2021 and she is paid a salary of up to $164,000. 

History of appointments

Appointments by the Kenney government have raised eyebrows before. 

In August, his cabinet overturned the boardroom tables at many of Alberta's commissions, boards and agencies. About 20 institutions (like post-secondary, health services and the liquor and gaming commission) were overhauled in one sweep. Many Conservative-associated appointees were then slotted into place.

The opposition accused them of "cronyism" for those moves.

Harrington's appointment has also drawn criticism from a group called Alberta Doctors for Patients. In a statement, they said it was unfortunate the government is making cuts to healthcare while simultaneously using that budget to pay a former UCP executive director's salary. 

The opposition also has concerns and has raised them in the legislature a handful of times. 

Minister Shandro has repeatedly defended Harrington in the chamber, saying, "She is highly qualified and will serve Albertans well."

Time for a rethink?

Separate from the politics of the appointment, health professionals have a very clear idea of what they want from the advocate — someone who has patient care experience on the ground. 

"It can't only be a person with a compassionate approach, it has to be somebody who understands government, understands health services, understands the matrices of services it supports," said David Grauwiler, the executive director of Alberta's division of the Canadian Mental Health Association. 

The advocate position was made permanent in 2014. Its responsibilities are to review complaints, inform and educate Albertans and help to resolve issues. The health advocate cannot take part in court cases, reverse decisions, discipline, apply penalties or investigate complaints involving the government. 

Unlike other Alberta advocates, this position reports directly to the minister of health instead of to the legislature. 

Williams says that fact and the lack of investigative powers are a "hugely problematic" part of the position. 

"What exactly is it supposed to be doing other than confirming what the government is doing is a good idea?" 

Both Williams and Grauwiler agree it's time to take a deeper look at the efficacy of the health and mental health advocate position — and look at overhauling it. 

About the Author

Elise von Scheel is a reporter and producer with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau, currently working in Calgary. You can get in touch with her at elise.von.scheel@cbc.ca.

With files from Carolyn Dunn

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